Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Choose Your Own Adventure: An Urban Fairytale

You are walking home from work, enjoying the beautiful late-summer atmosphere and in no real hurry to be anywhere. You reach into your pocket and jingle the two dollars in quarters you have there. As you walk, you meet an old man; he is dressed in old, grimy clothes, but his hands and face have been scrubbed clean. He looks at you with pale blue eyes and and asks, "Do you have any spare change, please?" If you give him change, go to B. If you don't, go to C.

B. The old man is very grateful and gives you the only thing he has to give, a packet of peanuts over which he says a blessing. The plastic of the small package is dirty and creased, and you wonder how long it's been in his pocket. You're beginning to suspect he's crazy, but you don't want to be rude and so you pocket the peanuts anyway as you walk away. Go to Y.

C. You apologetically tell the old man that you don't have any change, and he pins you with his faded eyes for a moment before humbly saying, "Thank you, anyway. I know a generous soul when I see one, and I can tell that you would have given me money if you had any to spare. Bless you." As he shuffles off, you immediately begin feeling guilty, but shrug it off as you turn to continue down the street. You pass a lady who's sitting on a park bench crying. If you stop to talk to her, go to N. If you don't, go to O.

D. You eat the peanuts and feel a little queasy, but the feeling fades and you start to feel much better--better than you remember ever having felt. Maybe the peanuts really were blessed. You continue to walk down the street. Go to H.

E. You encounter a squirrel who looks at you pitifully, its eyes almost human. If you want to give him your peanuts, go to G. If not, go to M.

F. You offer to trade the peanuts for the hotdog, and the man gives you a strange look. When he says that he prefers cash, you reply that they're magic peanuts and you're really quite hungry. He still refuses to trade you a hotdog for peanuts, however. Frustrated, you throw the bag at his cart and stomp away, wondering when your good karma from giving money to a bum is going to kick in. After only a few steps, you turn around to discover that a peanut stalk is growing up from underneath the cart, overturning it and scattering hotdogs all over the sidewalk. It grows rapidly until it is about six feet tall, then stands calmly waving in the wind. If you offer to help the man fix his stand, go to P. If you don't, go to Q.

G. You give the squirrel your peanuts, and he immediately perks up and begins to cram as many of the peanuts into his cheeks as will fit. You notice that he is standing next to what looks like a diamond ring and, while he is busy stuffing himself on the blessed peanuts, you pick up the diamond ring and slip it on. You're delighted to discover that it fits perfectly. You give a last smile to the squirrel and continue to walk down the street and a young woman approaches you, claiming that the ring is hers. She seems to be less interested in the ring itself than where you found it. If you give her the ring, go to I. If not, go to J.

H. A young woman approaches you and asks if you have seen a diamond ring. You reply that you haven't seen anything, and she says that her fiance had bought her a ring but that it had gone missing. She is so distraught that you consider buying her a cup of coffee from a nearby coffeeshop that you often frequent. If you offer to buy her coffee, go to K. If not, go to L.

I. You consider telling the woman to screw off, but decide instead to hand the ring over. As you reluctantly slip it off of your finger, the woman exultantly thanks you. "You don't know what this means to me," she says excitedly, but instead of putting the ring on, as you half-expect her to do, she instead turns to dash toward the park, making a bee-line for the tree you point out to her. Her eyes quickly scan the park, studying the trees and the garbage cans with particular attention, until her gaze lights on a familar-looking squirrel drinking out of the fountain. She runs toward the squirrel, holding out the ring enticingly. Go to X.

J. You tell the woman that she is mistaken--your mother gave you this ring years ago. The woman gives you a strange look and repeats that she knows that is her ring. It's a very special cut of diamond that her fiance, who is a gem-cutter, invented himself. You turn to leave, and she grabs your sleeve to begin screaming, "I know you have my ring! Where did you get it?" Frantic, you try to shake her off, but she refuses to let go of your shirt. At the sound of a high-pitched squeal, you glance over your shoulder and realize that you're being charged by the squirrel you saw earlier. The last thing you see is a red glazed look in the squirrel's eyes before it and the woman tear you apart in the middle of the street. The End.

K. You offer to buy her a cup of coffee, and the woman tearfully accepts, following you into the cozy little shop. Because you only have about two dollars on you, you can only afford two small cups of coffee, but she doesn't seem to be much interested in drinking it, instead stirring it endlessly with a wooden stick. Finally, she sighs dramatically. downs the coffee, and heads on her way without a word. Annoyed, you finish your own coffee and leave, as well, heading the opposite direction down the street on your way home. The End.

L. You manage to get home without any further interruptions to your day, but, unfortunately, the peanuts that you ate cause severe food poisoning and you have a rather painful evening. The End.

M. You sit down on a park bench and open your little packet of peanuts, eating them as you study the strange-looking squirrel. You recall hearing that some of the rodents in the city carry the Black Plague, and you decide you should probably notify someone about the squirrel's odd behavior, since it's probably indicative of disease. It is now running around in circles, pausing occasionally at the foot of a nearby tree. You have a friend who works for animal control, and you call him to let him know about the odd behavior of the squirrel. He agrees to come check it out later. You finish your peanuts and head home. Go to W.

N. When you gently ask the woman what's wrong, she replies in a sobbing voice, "I can't find my fiance. I think he may be missing." "Missing?" you ask. "Do you think he's been kidnapped?" "No," she replies with a hiccough. "But he gets lost easily. I haven't seen him all day." When you ask her if she has contacted the police, she says, "No. They wouldn't really be able to do anything, I don't think." She is silent for a moment before leaning forward and whispering, "He doesn't always look normal." "What does he look like?" She hesitantly answers, "Well... sometimes he looks like... a squirrel." If you stand up and leave, got to R. If you decide to hear her out, go to S.

O. You successfully get home without any interpersonal communication, dump your two dollars' change into your piggy bank, and watch four hours of television. The End.

P. The man is far too angry to accept your generous offer and scornfully rejects it, saying that you're lucky he doesn't sue you for the damages to his cart. You huffily reply that you didn't know that the peanut stalk would grow, so you can hardly be blamed for it. He starts muttering about contributary negligence as he struggles to right his cart. You allow yourself a moment of pleasure at his efforts before you head on your way, sure that you will tell this story many times in the years to come. The End.

Q. You take a picture of the peanut stalk with your cell phone camera, and you're about to continue down the street in smug satisfaction when you hear an angry shout from behind you. It is the owner of a nearby store, and he's staring at the peanut stalk in horror. "What did you do?" he demands. He stomps over to where the hotdog stand owner is standing, and they immediately begin yelling at each other. You take a picture of that, too, before you continue jaunitly on your way, whistling. The End.

R. You give the woman an indulgent smile and say, "Well, I hope you find him. Good luck with everything." You go home and thank God you only wasted two dollars on that crazy lady. The End.



S. You stare at her for a moment before saying, "A squirrel?" She hurries to add, "I know it sounds crazy, but it's true. He works as a gem-cutter here in town, and he was commissioned to make a very special diamond ring. When it was finished, it was the most magnificent ring I had ever seen. He was so proud of it." She is silent for a heartbeat as though she is carefully weighing her words. "When the client arrived to pick up the ring, she gave my fiance a check for one-tenth of her promised price. My fiance refused. And with that, she ... she ... cursed him!" Go to Z.


T. You follow the woman out into the street, where you find her yelling, "Harold! Harold! Where are you?" She seems to have forgotten about you entirely, and, irked, you leave her to her search. She's crazy, anyway. The End.


U. You remain on the park bench for some time, wondering what kind of medication that woman was supposed to be on. Finally, you head home, this time not talking to anyone else. The End.


V. You continue walking and come across a hotdog stand. Your stomach rumbles, but you have no money because you already gave all your money to the homeless man. If you eat the peanuts the old man gave you, go to D. If you offer to trade the peanuts for a hotdog, go to F.

W. Your friend calls you back later that evening to let you know that it had been determined that the squirrel was undoubtedly diseased and that it had been destroyed before it could infect any of the other animals in the park. Unfortunately, you cannot take your friend's call because you're in the bathroom suffering from food poisoning. Those damn peanuts weren't blessed after all. The End.

X. The moment the squirrel catches sight of the ring, it turns and leaps into her arms, its small arms reaching greedily for the sparkling bauble. The woman, seeming to forget about you entirely, cuddles the squirrel close and murmurs to it. You clear your throat pointedly and she turns around to introduce you to her fiance. "This is Harold," she says in an adoring voice, but he looks just like a normal squirrel to you. "Er--nice to meet you, Harold," you reply, unsure of what is required if you are introduced to an animal. Do you shake paws? You think about the possibility of the Black Plague and keep your hands discreetly tucked in your pockets. "And now you shall have a reward," the woman declares, and hands you a business card. "This is Harold's card--he has a small gem shop here in town. Stop by sometime and I'm sure he'll get you set up with something sparkly and pretty." You take the business card, which seems perfectly legitimate, and as you're studying it, the woman moves away, still talking to her squirrel. You feel a pang of regret for losing that beautiful ring, then shrug it aside and head home. The End.

Y. You come to a T in the road, in which one path that you can take goes by a fairly picturesque park that you often enjoy walking through. The other road continues through town, where you can see the hustle and bustle of city life. If you walk through the park, go to E. If you go through town, go to V.

Z. She chokes back a sob. "Every full moon, he takes on the form of a squirrel for twenty-four hours, and he forgets everything except for that ring. It possesses him." She takes a sip from her now-cool coffee. "Normally I keep the ring in our apartment, and I chain it down so he can't pick it up and run away from it. Somehow, though, this month, it got loose and he ran away with it. I've been looking for him all day. He'll turn back into a man tonight at the stroke of midnight, but he might hurt himself if I'm not there to make sure he's safe. What if he's in a tree and falls out, or is underneath a dumpster and gets crushed?" Her voice is rising in pitch. "I have to find him." She stands up and says, "I really need to start looking for him again." If you follow her, go to T. If not, go to U.

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I decided to write my own Choose Your Own Adventure story when I realized that I've never written one before, and I thought it would be kind of fun to be able to play with plot and action in a way traditional fiction prohibits. In case you were wondering, though, Choose Your Own Adventures are harder to write than they would seem to be. There's no logical progression of plot if you're constantly having splits in the path of the storyline, and the ending tends toward the anticlimactic. This is probably why most of the Choose Your Own Adventures novels end in painfully bloody deaths in an effort to force a climax at the end of a story that doesn't naturally have one.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Why Write When Computers Can Do It For You?

I don't have much time to write--what with that whole DNC thing here in Denver--but I had to post about this. I stumbled across this article from Financial Times called "Click Lit," which is about computer software that helps aspiring writers pound out their novels in a very Choose-Your-Own-Adventure manner. They present different character archetypes and plot devices while promising to stir up creativity in a way that would be otherwise impossible. In my opinion, however, programs such as these are virtually raping the creative process.

For example, one UK program, NewNovelist, states, "Let's be frank - time is money. You need to get your book out, like, yesterday." When did writing novels become all about the money they can generate? When did the process lose its appeal and the writer lose her place in the formation of the book? Writing is supposed to be hard--otherwise, everyone would be doing it. If you write your book without working a little bit, how can you take any pleasure in the finished product that will probably not be published, anyway?

I'm a little bit disgusted. Actually, I'm a lot disgusted.

Here's the article, if you're interested: http://us.ft.com/ftgateway/superpage.ft?news_id=fto082220082220576827&page=2

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Rushing into Identity

Identity is such a crucial affair that one shouldn't rush into it.
--David Quammen

I've recently been struggling with the idea of identity, which is hardly a new idea. Historically speaking, literature has been dealing with the changeability of identity for hundreds and hundreds of years, even in Ovid's Metamorphoses, which was completed in 8 A.D--roughly two thousand years ago. This theme has stretched from ancient Rome to Elizabethan England (Shakespeare's Twelfth Night, anyone?) to today (Spiderman?).

My problem, however, is that identity in America today tends to revolve around what one does for a living. The first time you meet someone, they ask, "So, what do you do?" They don't ask you who you are or what your hobbies are, what your favorite book is or who your heroes are. They ask you where you work, what your position is, what you do.

(Actually, that's not quite true. I once had a guy I met at a party ask me to tell him about myself. After I went through the whole spiel of normal small-talk topics, he replied, "But who are you?" I wasn't quite sure how to answer his question and floundered for a moment, and each answer I provided was apparently less than satisfactory as he kept repeating, "But who are you? You aren't telling me anything about you." He had pale, pale eyes and didn't blink very often, and this ice-blue stare, combined with his strange nice-to-meet-you conversation, resulted in a very unsettling several minutesthat ended with my subsequent escape to the bathroom. If you think about it, he was correct--I was telling him facts about myself, but I wasn't necessarily telling truths--but then again, I don't normally start discussing truths unless I've had a couple of drinks and am with friends, so his interrogation could be considered inappropriate.)

Of course, few people take this route and focus instead on what your job is. Think about this: I went to a school with the motto, "Nobody at UCLA keeps score on who you are. They just want to see what you do." On the one hand, this is incredibly comforting--at a public university whose greatest rival is USC, the uber-rich, uber-snotty private school, it is nice to know that you will not be judged on your economic background or your personality, . You will not hear the phrase, "Anybody who's anybody" at a place that promises not to keep tabs on "who" anybody is. The problem arises, then, when you have a job that you feel doesn't accurately portrays who you are or what your abilities are.

I feel fairly certain this is virtually an epidemic in America today as more and more colleges spit out more and more graduates... and more and more jobs are outsourced. There are many examples of this in popular culture, as well--intelligent, well-educated characters who have jobs that are less than fulfilling or challenging. My personal favorite example is Wonderfalls, in which the main character Jaye earned her philosophy degree from Brown and is described as "over-educated and unemployable." She is witty and intelligent--and she works in retail and lives in a trailer park, a direct contrast from the rest of her over-achieving family. Throughout the single season that was produced, Jaye struggles to come to terms with both her profession and her life style in a world that sees the value in neither.

I suppose we're all suffering from Benjamin Braddock syndrome--we're perfectly capable of achieving great things, but we have either a lack of motivation or lack of opportunities. My favorite moment from The Graduate takes place on Ben's birthday, when his parents buy him scuba diving equipment and force him to show it off to their friends in their pool in the backyard. It's the perfect metaphor; we are given an education by our parents and then expected to perform, and when we surface from the swimming pool for air, they push us back down underwater to show off their gifts.
Is this expectation of high achievements fair or justified, however? According to the U.S Bureau of Census, the US population is at around three-hundred-and-four million people. [1] Can we all achieve great things? And just what is "great"? Is it enough to just break even and stay out of debt as the number of foreclosures rises and Americans' debt piles higher? Or do we need to cure cancer to be considered truly successful? Will we be happy once we realize these expectations are unrealistic?

I'm starting to believe that it is this never-ending pile of expectations that accounts for the popularity of the "alter ego" in literature, comics, and cinema today. Look at some of the top films for this year--The Incredible Hulk, The Dark Knight, Iron Man. They feature people who seem ordinary in their everyday lives but manage to perform extraordinary tasks, ultimately saving the world. Who doesn't have the fantasy that we're more than our family, friends, and coworkers see? ("You know the world can see us / In a way that's different from who we are.")
In fact, I stumbled across a first-rate example of this last week. My company employs Wackenhut guards for security in our down-town Denver office, and many of them fit the post-military stereotype that probably just appeared in your mind. Last week, however, I met a guard who informed me that he was an "artist." I, of course, took this with a grain of salt and asked what medium he worked in. He immediately launched into a monologue on how he was studying under a Russian master sculptor, Valentin Okorokov (http://www.valentinokorokov.com/), and worked in both marble and bronzes. I was blown away--who would have thought that a security guard would have that kind of talent? It just goes to show that what you do to pay the bills has little-to-nothing to do with who you are as a person.

I guess my point is, if you're struggling with this, you should try watching Wonderfalls. It does wonders (pun intended) for me, despite my current resistance to the television phenomenon. You can find it on DVD--it was created by the same producers who are currently making Pushing Daisies, which has won numerous Emmys. I guess if you insist on reading instead, you could try The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson. (http://books.google.com/books?id=A5bc6EJP6QMC&dq=dr.+jekyll+and+mr+hyde&pg=PP1&ots=17kbX425_7&sig=lX2fNtclCtMOU3miVnohvA1odhM&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result)

Work Cited:


Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Read and Boast II: Great Nonfiction

Here's the second installment of my "Read and Boast" series, this list comprised of what I consider great (or at least useful) nonfiction.

Correspondents of The New York Times. How Race Is Lived In America: Pulling Together, Pulling Apart.

This is an incredibly interesting collection of stories written by various correspondents of The New York Times regarding what it means to struggle with race in America today. There are no scandals, no larger-than-life figures, but instead the stories explore issues that middle America faces.

My personal favorite of the stories is about a church that was established to have a congregation that is fifty percent white, fifty percent African American. What makes this so interesting is that it shows that the color of skin matters less to the church members than the method of worship.

Here's a link to a digital copy of the book, available through google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=SESBv3cDNK8C&dq=How+Race+Is+Lived+in+America&pg=PP1&ots=IQuz2I-93n&sig=H46WBkkbqbqL8NogGZfswzArS2A&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and its Discontents

This book is a fascinating look at the development of civilization. Anyone who is interested in how psychology and philosophy can overlap and intersect would probably enjoy this book. (What I find most memorable about the book was Freud's theory regarding the development of the conscience.) Also, in case you're worried, it doesn't involve too many of his theories of psychoanalysis, some of which are less-than-impressive in the 21st century.

Here's a link to the digital version available through google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=AW3z38T3u7YC&dq=civilization+and+its+discontents&pg=PP1&ots=6bkjaHF3sc&sig=hHxRBo-WC5nvRVC9E2gIPbxtiKA&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPA7,M1


Lewis, C.S. Mere Christianity

I would highly recommend this book, both for Christians and non-Christians. Lewis is such a genius that reading this is a pleasure, and I had many of what I like to call 'ah-hah' moments. (Of course, I didn't really like the last section--I disagreed with the assertion of what "theology" is, as well as many of his arguments, but what can you do?) Non-Christians can benefit from reading a reasonable, simple explanation of many of the beliefs that seem so bizarre, but Lewis does not try to force his beliefs on anyone. Instead, it feels like he is very respectfully addressing the entire spectrum of readers in his audience.

In addition, I think the world would be a better place if all Christians read this book and lived by it; I know my life would be easier. For an online text-only version of the book, go to http://lib.ru/LEWISCL/mere_engl.txt.


Mathews, Joe. The People's Machine: Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Rise of Blockbuster Democracy.

This book would probably be most interesting to people who know something about California politics, but it is also interesting to see just how well Schwarzenneger uses the media to his advantage. We're in a day and age of what Mathews calls "blockbuster democracy," and Schwarzenneger is an expert at it. This will help you see politics in general in a new light.
It's also a fairly easy read, and it's interesting to see how Schwarzenegger came to be one of the most important governors in the nation. In addition, I found it fascinating how he came to identify with the Republican party, when many would claim he's a RINO (Republican In Name Only) and married into the Kennedy family.

Here's a link to the book at google books: http://books.google.com/books?id=5vxwV6uFcC0C&dq=the+people

Nietsche, Friedrich. On the Genealogy of Morality.

Yes, I know, Nietsche is almost a cliche nowadays, with emo kids around the world reading him and agreeing whole-heartedly while they listen to Linkin Park and cut themselves. But, as with Civilization and its Discontents, I think it's useful to look at another idea of where morality comes from, when we are constantly told that Judeo-Christian ethics are the norm because God said so, and they are to be followed or else...



Obama, Barack. The Audacity of Hope.
Full disclosure: I am currently only about three-quarters of the way through this book, but Obama's message of bipartisan cooperation and change for the better is like a salve for my bruised, liberal soul. Obama's writing style is very similar to his speaking style--sweeping and poetic, so it's a pleasure to read. Plus, if he's the next president of the United States, don't you want to be able to say that you've done at least a little bit of research into his points of view?

(Before you say it, I know that the same could be said of McCain, but I haven't even scraped together enough time to finish this one yet, let alone start one of McCain's.)


Orman, Suze. The Money Book for the Young, Fabulous, and Broke.

I'm not generally a fan of self-help kinds of books, but Orman breaks down financial problems to make them both easier to understand and easier to handle. While I haven't read the whole thing, I have read the sections on retirement plans and health benefits, which helped me when I was signing up for them with my new job. These are the kinds of things that we all need to do, but none of us really know how.
Plus, Orman doesn't write annoying platitudes such as, "If you just stop going to Starbucks every day, you can save $5000 a year!" Budget management is important, but it's not as simple as that, and I'm glad she doesn't act like it is.


Shermer, Michael. Why People Believe Weird Things: Pseudoscience, Superstition, and Other Confusions of Our Time.
I hesitated over whether to include this book on my list, but I finally decided that there is a lot of good stuff in it. Michael Shermer is founder of the American Skeptics Association, and while there is much in his creed that I agree with whole-heartedly (read the chapter on Ayn Rand), there is some of the book that I want to disagree with but am unable to argue against coherently because he is speaking from a position of absolute logic and reason. (The chapter on death was especially difficult for me to read).

Here's a link to the Skeptics Association website if you're curious: http://www.skeptic.com/


Tatum, Beverly Daniel. Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

This book is one of the few that I would insist that everyone--no matter their race or political views--should read. I came across it a few years ago when I took a Race and Race Relations class, and the book absolutely changed my point of view on many issues, not the least of which is affirmative action.

What makes this book unique, however, is that it has chapters on race identies--for example, the stages of development that an African-American will go through as he or she develops an understanding of where African-Americans fit in the world. For me, however, the fact that Dr. Tatum included a chapter on white racial identity was mind-boggling, when so often we tend to forget that white is a race. Anyway, read this book!

Wolf, Naomi. The End of America: Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot.
This is another book that I think everyone should read, though it is the most terrifying book I've ever read. (It would pair up very nicely with Brave New World and 1984 if anyone is so inclined.)

Wolf outlines the ten steps that every fascist state has gone through (whether that is Nazi Germany or Mussolini's Italy) before throwing its people into martial law. The ten steps are as follows: 1) Invoke a terrifying internal and external enemy; 2) Create secret prisons where torture takes place; 3) Develop a thug caste or paramilitary force not answerable to citizens; 4) Set up an internal surveillance system; 5) Harass citizens' groups; 6) Engage in arbitrary detention and release; 7) Target key individuals; 8) Control the press; 9) Treat all political dissents as traitors; and, 10) Suspend the rule of law.

Wow, we're already at step nine! Only one more to go before we, too, can make history!

X, Malcom. The Autobiography of Malcolm X.
Just read it. We all know oodles and oodles about Martin Luther King Jr (or at least some of us do), but we know very little about Malcolm X. If nothing else, you should read the epilogue, which was written just months before his assasination and in which he acknowledges: a) that he is going to die soon, and b) Martin Luther King Jr. will be lauded by white men while he, Malcolm X, will be painted as an enemy of the state. He was right on-target, wouldn't you say? Also, slightly off-topic, there's a fabulous PBS documentary on Malcolm X that they play during Black History Month. Keep an eye out for it.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Lindsay: 1 -- Dumbasses of the World: 0


Oh, snap! I love reading, if only because other people talk about books they haven't read as though nobody's read them, and I love putting in my two cents when I have bothered to do more than just skim the dust jacket. I really love reading.

Anyway, a gentleman came up to me and began to talk politics, apparently thinking that it's a suitable subject for small talk since CNN happens to be on TV. He immediately starts in on Obama's stance on abortion, as highlighted by the Saddleback Church Civil Forum, picture right. He had heard a snippet of the "debate" and wanted to discuss it. I, on the other hand, watched the "debate" and clarified Obama's stance.

This gentleman, a self-proclaimed independent, then switched over to "a book Obama wrote" and said that he once walked into a bookstore and flipped through this book, and on every page he glanced at, "Obama just wants to take money away from us and give it to poor people." When I asked which book he meant, he said, "Just a big, fat book."

"Well," I replied in a reasonable tone, "do you mean Dreams from my Father or Audacity of Hope?" He hesitated, unsure, and finally said he didn't remember. "Because," I continued, "Dreams from my Father really isn't about political issues, and in Audacity of Hope he does a pretty good job of praising bipartisanship, and he doesn't exactly brush against tax policy. He's trying to highlight similarities between conservatives and liberals rather than emphasizing their differences." He was silent for a bit, and I offered, "I was a public policy minor, you know. I would have noticed if he had."

Our political discussion was over.
By the way, I have a feeling he was talking about Obama Nation: Leftist Policy and the Cult of Personality, by Jerome R. Corsi. Unfortunately, however, that book wasn't written by Obama, nor is any part of it true. (You can find a pretty clear expose of the book at http://mediamatters.org/items/200808040005?f=h_top.) However, since I haven't read the book, I won't go any further into detail, because I know when to keep my mouth shut.

Come on, people. You can't flip through a book at Barnes and Noble, claim that you read it, and also claim that it you know what it said. I mean, you can if you want to, but it'll occasionally come back to bite you in the ass. If you aren't going to read, at least check snopes.com so you don't make yourself look like an idiot in front of a receptionist who's better-read than you are.
Oh, and that website again is http://www.snopes.com/. You'll thank me.

Fantasy and Fairy Tales

For various reasons, I went to my local used bookstore this weekend to try to find a light, frothy book to make the rainy days cozy rather than confining, and I stumbled across The Fairy Godmother by Mercedes Lackey. (In my defense, at the time I did not know that the publishing company Luna was actually a branch of Harlequin, but I doubt it would have mattered because the storyline seemed so interesting despite the incredibly lame front cover.)

Anyway, without delving too far into the story to risk ruining it for others, I enjoyed the book and it was a very quick read. I love re-works of fairy tales almost as much as I love re-works of Biblical tales, and Lackey weaves some Russian fairy tales in with the predominant "Cinderella" story. If you like fantasy novels or fairy tales, you'll probably like this book, though the sex scenes were superfluous and added nothing to the story. (I guess it wouldn't have been Harlequin without them, though.) The book was good enough, however, that I'm seriously considering tracking down the other two books in the series to continue reading them.

What stuck in my mind afterwards, however, was a Q-and-A with Lackey in which she says that she enjoys fantasy because it is the closest genre we have now to moral tales. Generally, the good triumph over the bad and everyone lives happily-ever-after-the-end. She also added that women tended to be less willing to settle for anything less than pure bliss, while men weren't as opinionated on the matter.

First of all, I'd like to know where she gets her information. I suppose on the one hand it seems to be superficially true (why read a romance novel if it ends sadly?), but on the other hand, it gives women very little credit for any depth of thought. It also completely discounts Danielle Steele's success as a "women's writer," when (from what I understand) her books generally have two main love interests, one of whom dies tragically part-way through. Women are known to enjoy sad stories, and I know quite a few who will watch a sad movie just because they "feel like crying." (Actually, I've done this in the past--my brother swears the entire female species is crazy for actually wanting to cry, but if I'm feeling emotionally blah, the last fifteen minutes or so of Braveheart or Armageddon will fix that problem right away.)
On the other hand, while fairy tales may very well be "moral tales," what we often think of as fairy tales are in no way like the original Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson stories of old, which are, generally, vicious and cruel with incredibly bloody endings. Do we really want moral tales that end with the "bad" having limbs hacked off to live in poverty for the rest of their miserable lives? Especially when, deep down, none of us is perfect and we each secretly know that we, too, would receive the painful, bloody ending if these "moral tales" were true?

Read and Boast I: Great Fiction

"There are two motives for reading a book; one, that you enjoy it; the other, that you can boast about it." --Bertrand Russell

(Ironically enough, I think just invoking Bertrand Russell's name is pompous enough to be a boast in and of itself)

While I have occasionally brushed over the topic of "good" reading, a careful observer will notice that it has always been in a vague we could argue about this all day kind of way without ever actually saying anything in particular. In fact, though I've received requests that I put together a list of recommended reading, I generally hesitate to even approach the topic of which books one must read before one can be considered an intelligent, well-educated person because there are many books that would belong on this list that I haven't read yet. I suspect that it would be hypocritical of me to judge others for not having been exposed books that I've been lucky enough to have read. Part of my hesitation is due to the fact that, though I know I can't judge others for not having read books, other readers will have a slightly different take on whatever books I choose to include or not include, and there is always the implicit threat of judgment by those far better read than I. (Oops, my inferiority complex is showing.)

Today, however, I will take what is for me a large step and will post the first of what will eventually be three "recommended reading" lists, and I reserve the right to change the contents of these lists whenever I damn well please. One of the lists will be comprised of fictional works, one of non-fictional works, and one of fun, fast reads. These lists are in no way representative of all good books--instead, they should be viewed as mere suggestions of books I've read in the past that I think others might enjoy or get something out of; they are skewed towards American and British literature, partly because that is where most of my experience with modern fiction lies and also partly because some people have problems reading translations of texts. The lists are in alphabetical order by author's last name and are not intended to be used as a ranking system.

I've also put together these lists with the intention of them being useful for those who weren't English majors or don't have particular experience with or interest in reading difficult works. For example, I would say that one of the most monumental works I've read is Paradise Lost by John Milton, if only because it is a shining example of genius that changed my own relationship both with Christianity and with literature as a whole. However, I also feel that most people might not get very much out of it due to language challenges, so it would be a waste to tell everyone that he or she should read it. Would I say it's good? Yes. Would I say it is "required reading"? Not in a million years.

Finally, without further ado, the first of the lists:

FICTION YOU SHOULD TRY IF YOU HAVEN'T ALREADY:

Byron, Lord George Gordon. Don Juan. (Pronounced, for those of you who don't know, "Don Jew-an," not "Don Wuan.")

I was a bit hesitant at first as to whether to include this on my list, as it is poetry and not the prose most people are used to reading, but I enjoy it so much that I finally decided I had to keep it on here. Plus, Byron was the first literary celebrity, and today it seems people don't care about anything but celebrity, so it makes sense to include it. It's very clever and witty, and the entire thing is a work of genius. Honestly, it really is.

For those of you who want to try it without buying it or making a trip to the library, here's a link to its google book site: http://books.google.com/books?hl=en&id=JSbiUkpjDuoC&dq=Don+Juan&printsec=frontcover&source=web&ots=4SMmEGLSAK&sig=AA3cXI-whNt0E2tFGncR-PoK80s&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=4&ct=result#PPA15,M1

Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby.

I know that most people read this book in high school, but I think that everyone should read this book, not just those with the traditionalists for teachers. The characters are just so perfect--Jay Gatsby and Daisy can basically stand for the types of characters they are. I find it hard to describe just what I mean by this, but I feel like you'll understand if you've read the book. Plus, the eyes on the billboard are just too perfect--they're perhaps the best metaphor for the eyes of God I've come across. ("Anyone think this should be paired with the Monkey Wrench Gang? Ha, ha!" That was a bad literary joke that no one got. It was, obviously, followed by the echoing sound of crickets and silent pity.)


Hardy, Thomas. The Return of the Native.
While I enjoy this book's characters and storyline (it has a femme fatal to die for--literally), what fascinates me most is one of the characters in particular, the Redding Man. Hardy originally intended this character to be a Satan figure, his skin stained red by the dye he sells, but Hardy ended up liking the figure so much that he changed his role completely. It just goes to show that books exist--at least a little bit--independently of the writer's intentions. For years, the Redding Man was my favorite literary character of all time, for just that reason.

Anyway, if you like Victorian novels, you'll like this book, since Hardy is, in my opinion, the Victorian author. You could even pair this with the afore-blogged-about The French Leutenant's Woman by John Fowles.

Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World.
Just read it. It's a fairly easy read, and it explores the idea of morality behind science--that is, just because we can do something doesn't necessarily mean we should. It also shows just what people mean when they say "totalitarian," and a figure who stands for men today--John "Savage"--runs around the plot as your personal representative, completely overwhelmed by what the world has become. Plus, there's drugs and sex. Why wouldn't you want to read it?

Here's a link to a text-only version of the book: http://www.huxley.net/bnw/index.html

Kesey, Ken. One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.
Nurse Ratched. Enough said.

Oh, and also: no, you can't claim that seeing the movie is the same as reading the book--the book is just as good as the movie, if not better because it's the original. (Kesey actually thought the movie butchered his story line, but all authors believe that, don't they?)

Kesey was one of the few Beatniks who didn't write stream-of-consciousness (Gary Snyder being another), but this novel has the same amount of rebellious indignation as most of the other works in the Beat canon. It also has the added side-effect of wanting to never put anyone you know in a mental institution unless you hate them. Plus, Randle Patrick McMurphy is one of the coolest characters ever written, bar none, and his transformation throughout the novel is one of the most tragic things I've ever read. An excellent, excellent book.

O'Connor, Flannery. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories.

Let me just say that I love Flannery O'Connor. Her writing style is so smart, her characterizations dead-on, and her climaxes unexpected. I actually modeled my writing after hers for several years, aiming to be the secular Flannery O'Connor, as if that were possible. My favorite of her stories is "Good Country People."

Of course, anyone who has an objection to Christian writings shouldn't bother trying this--she was a Southern Gothic writer with a very strong theological bent, and you probably won't like it.
Here's a link to a website with a text-only version of "Good Country People": http://www.geocities.com/cyber_explorer99/oconnorgoodcountry.html

Orwell, George. Animal Farm.

I was torn between including this or 1984, but honestly, I think you should read them both if you haven't already, especially in light of everything that has been happening politically in recent years. I would love to teach a class called "Fascism in Literature," and we could start with Plato and work our way on down.

Anyway, this book makes you think, and it's where the phrase "Some are more equal than others" came from, though, honestly, Orwell had plenty of inspiraition from his post-WWII, Cold War England.

Here's a link to the google books website: http://books.google.com/books?id=SGAZdjNfruYC&dq=animal+farm&pg=PP1&ots=vsHb3ffSOI&sig=ZNAUR6IJ87ER8Ifm8RL-NB9zAy4&hl=en&sa=X&oi=book_result&resnum=1&ct=result#PPR5,M1

Rand, Ayn. The Fountainhead.
I know that there is a collective gasp of judgment emanating from all sides right now, but I truly enjoyed this novel when I read it. Atlas Shrugged, not so much. It was just too long, but The Fountainhead proves that I can like a book while disagreeing with its fundamental message. Some people argue that her message is abhorrent and her writing is awful, but I think that the fact that I like this book while being a progressive liberal shows that this might not be the case. Don't read it if you're passionately socialist, however, or you'll want to string me up for recommending it.

More on this book later, I think. I've come across several books and movies that I think pair excellently with Rand, but my favorite reference to her is in Angels in America by Tony Kushner; after Joe and Louis get in a fight, Louis is left bloody and gasping on the floor and says, "It was like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel, huh?" Classic!
Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein.
One thing I like about this book is that there are just so many ways to look at it--as the daughter of Mary Wollstonecraft, one of the earliest proto-feminists, she holds a unique place in history. As the wife of Percy Shelley, one of the great Romantic poets, she was also in a unique position to see all of what was going on in literary and poetic circles of the time. (I think it should be noted that Percy Shelley "turned" her, as it was, and after his death the only people with whom she was ever romantically involved were women, another unique position in the 19th century.)

There's man vs. nature, man vs. woman, nature vs. nurture, man vs. monster... you can read this novel with any number of different intepretations, which I think is great. It helps us make up our own minds about these issues.
This was the first book I ever read slowly, like I was sipping something rather than gulping it down as fast as it would go. Steinbeck is one of my favorite authors, and this is my favorite of his books (although I've read others, as well, and enjoyed them, too). Salinas (the setting for the book) serves as another character, deftly interwoven into the plot. Also, as you know, I've been on a Christian kick for a couple of years, now, and his use of the Cain and Able story is very well done.

(If you want to try something a little shorter, since the book is kind of fat and might be intimidating, Cannery Row is an excellent novel as well that many people haven't read. Mice and Men, too, obviously.)


Finally, I finished this list. It sounded so easy when I first agreed to do it, but now I'm exhausted. It's a lot more work than it sounds.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

It was a Dark and Stormy Night...

The 2008 results are in, and they're fantastic!

No, I'm not talking about the Olympics, but the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest, in which writers submit the worst possible opening sentences for imaginary novels. The contest is named for Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1830 novel “Paul Clifford,” begins, “It was a dark and stormy night". [1] Apparently, the man left more than just this melodramatic introduction as his legacy, but I'm not sure "The pen is mightier than the sword" really makes up for this monstrosity:

It was a dark and stormy night; the rain fell in torrents - except at occasional intervals, when it was checked by a violent gust of wind which swept up the streets (for it is in London that our scene lies), rattling along the housetops, and fiercely agitating the scanty flame of the lamps that struggled against the darkness. [2]

Blech. Anyway, here was the winning entry for the Bulwer-Lytton Fiction Contest:

Theirs was a New York love, a checkered taxi ride burning rubber, and like the city their passion was open 24/7, steam rising from their bodies like slick streets exhaling warm, moist, white breath through manhole covers stamped "Forged by DeLaney Bros., Piscataway, N.J."

Not bad, right? (By that, I mean it's not bad because it's horrible.)

Anyway, it's kind of fun to try to write badly. It's reassuring to know there's at least one person out there who writes worse than you do, even if it's you. If you're curious, here's my idea of the perfect beginning to a bad book:

Naked and still exhausted, Sam Reed laid on his back in his bed staring at the ceiling and considered the irony that as a firefighter, his life was on the line—daily—and yet he’d nearly been taken out by a cold.

Zing! I didn't even write it! That's the beginning from Flash Storm by Jill Shalvis (cover pictured left. Those things crack me up) [3] Really, though, the joke's on me, because I had to sort through a number of those Harlequin intros to find the perfect one.

Here's the website if you'd like to check out other "winners" and "dishonorable mentions" for the contest this year: http://www.sjsu.edu/faculty/scott.rice/blfc2008.htm

Works Cited:

[1] Bloom, Julie. "Bad Writing, Inspired By New York." The New York Times. http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/15/arts/15arts-BADWRITINGIN_BRF.html?_r=1&oref=slogin

[2] "It was a dark and stormy night." http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/it-was-a-dark-and-stormy-night.html

[3] Shalvis, Jill. Flash Storm. Accessed at http://www.eharlequin.com/articlepage.html?articleId=1356&chapter=1

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

The Greatest Mark Twain Disappointment of My Life

Some years ago, when I was in high school, my family and I heard about the Mark Twain Cabin in Angels Camp, California. I, being the nerd I am, immediately wanted to see it. Unfortunately, I wasn't nerdy enough to actually do any research on the cabin before we actually left and was subjected to The Greatest Mark Twain Disappointment of My Life.

First off, it's a short hike up to the cabin, but it was burning hot out, and the sun was baking us as we walked. When we got up there, the cabin was completely barred from public access--which I fully support, by the way, and was not the basis for the disappointment. The disappointment came when I discovered that Twain--aka Samuel Clemens--never lived in the cabin. Instead, he only stayed there when he was visiting the Gillis brother, William and James. Oh, and the original cabin burnt down, so what's up there now is a replica. Basically, I hiked up to look at a replica of a cabin that Mark Twain once slept at. That's bullshit.

I should have known. Want to know the name of the hill the "Mark Twain" cabin is on? Jackass Hill. I should have known.

"Are you sure? He looks like Mark Twain."

I was recently re-introduced to one of my all-time favorite works, The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain. Now, mind you, I hate hate hate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn for various reasons which I won't get into here, but Twain as a writer is a genius. I loved A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur's Court, and I also love this re-write of the original Genesis story which is in turn hilarious and touching.

What makes the stories even better, though, is that at one time the original collection was banned because it featured pictures of--gasp!--a naked lady. Because it's not like the Bible made it abundantly and explicitly clear that Eve was naked or anything. Now, you might be asking me what's so funny about a book being banned (since you probably already know my views on banning books). Here was Twain's response to the controversy:
"The whole episode has rather amused me. I have no feeling of vindictiveness over the stand of the librarians there — I am only amused. You see they did not object to my book; they objected to Lester Ralph's pictures. I wrote the book; I did not make the pictures. I admire the pictures, and I heartily approve them, but I did not make them.
"It seems curious to me — some of the incidents in this case. It appears that the pictures in Eve's Diary were first discovered by a lady librarian. When she made the dreadful find, being very careful, she jumped at no hasty conclusions — not she — she examined the horrid things in detail. It took her some time to examine them all, but she did her hateful duty! I don't blame her for this careful examination; the time she spent was, I am sure, enjoyable, for I found considerable fascination in them myself.
"Then she took the book to another librarian, a male this time, and he, also, took a long time to examine the unclothed ladies. He must have found something of the same sort of fascination in them that I found…"

Later, in a letter to a friend, he wrote, "the truth is, that when a Library expels a book of mine and leaves an unexpurgated Bible lying around where unprotected youth and age can get hold of it, the deep unconscious irony of it delights me and doesn't anger me." [1]

How can you not love this guy? Anyway, read the diaries. They're fairly short and they're located at this link: http://classiclit.about.com/library/bl-etexts/mtwain/bl-mtwain-exadam-1.htm
Work Semi-Cited:
[1] Got these quotations from wikipedia (and yes, I can hear your scorn from here), and the links take you to this guy's website because he's trying to sell some books: http://www.jimzwick.net/. Does this count as a citation?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

No One Matches Wits Like Gaston

I received the complaint yesterday that my blog had too many words and not enough pictures. My response? Have you ever seen Beauty and the Beast? Do you remember this part:

How can you read this? There are no pictures!

You know you're in trouble when you start sounding like a Disney supervillain. I'm just saying.

The "Intimidating and Impenetrable Fog"

So I stumbled across something interesting today, a "Readability Index Calculator" (you can find it at http://www.standards-schmandards.com/exhibits/rix/), which measures the difficulty of a particular piece of writing. There were actually two standards of measurment, which the website explains thusly:

"The Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score indicates how easy a text is to read. A high score implies an easy text. In comparison comics typically score around 90 while legalese can get a score below 10. The Flesch-Kincaid Grade level indicates the grade a person will have to have reached to be able to understand the text. E.g. a grade level of 7 means that a seventh grader will be able to understand the text."

Apparently, I'm at graduate-level writing without ever having gone to graduate school. (Doesn't give me much of an incentive to actually go to graduate school, does it?) Anyway, here were my scores for two of my blog posts:

For my "I Am an Archetype, Hear Me Roar!" piece, I scored a 36 on the Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease score (with 100 being very easy and 0 being very difficult), with a grade level of 15, which I'm assuming is the junior year of college?

For my post on laughter as a signifier of community in James Agee's A Death in the Family, I scored a 34 on the Flesch-Kincaid Read Ease score with a grade level of 18. Again, I'm assuming this means I can write like a grad student. Interestingly enough, however, the "reading ease" score on this post was only slightly lower than the score for my personal essay, which was considered a full three grades easier.

Not actually saying I believe this, just saying it's interesting. Plug something of your own in if you want to try it out.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

RIP Old Dreams and Aspirations

The internet has been abuzz this week with news of the death of Professor Randy Paush, made famous this year for the Youtube video of his "Last Lecture." (Those of you who have been living under a rock can view the video here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ji5_MqicxSo) Though I had seen snippets of his speech, I sat down today to watch the whole thing (which has been viewed over six million times on youtube alone), but I had to turn it off after about forty-five minutes because I was getting too depressed. And no, before you say it, the depression did not stem from his death, or even his attitude in the face of his death. Rather, I was depressed by his absolute insistence that we can all achieve our dreams if we just try hard enough.

The problem is not that all of his childhood dreams came true--I don't begrudge him his zero-G experiences or his chance to meet William Shatner. In fact, some part of me believes that the universe gave him those opportunities in a kind of karmic exchange for the fact that he did not get to see his children grow up, though I'm sure he would have preferred the latter if he had been given the choice. No, the problem is that I don't believe that hard work and perseverance can conquer all no matter what.

I used to believe it was true--I think everyone in my generation did at one point or another, if only because we were raised on the mantra "you can be anything you want to be." When I got to UCLA, all of my professors--especially the ones who taught Public Policy, my minor courses--drilled into our heads that we were "the best of the best, the cream of the crop" and had a responsibility to study as hard as possible so that we could go on to do great things for the world. I honestly believed that I would graduate from college, the angels would burst into song, and the nation as a whole would fall at my feet and thank me for finally arriving to solve all the world's problems ... well, okay, I guess that's a bit of an exaggeration, but I did think I would go on to do great things. I immediately found a job at a nonprofit organization in Santa Monica and prepared to tackle the reproductive health issues of the poor of LA.

The problem, however, was that I absolutely hated my job. I was making eleven dollars an hour; I had an hour's commute in the afternoon; I worked long shifts and weekends; and--what finally set off warning bells in my head--all of my co-workers were completely burnt out, angry husks of the idealists they must have once been. I quit after three months, even when I was offered a job in another department I had been eying. I found out the hard way that making a difference--what I had always self-righteously proclaimed I would do--is not as much fun as Americorps commercials would have you think.

Fast-forward twelve months, and I am now employed as a receptionist for a Fortune 500 Big Oil corporation. Is this my dream job? Hardly. (Although it does give me ample opportunity to work on my blog.) But I am faced with an unpleasant reality that forces me to make decisions I wouldn't otherwise make, and that reality is comprised mostly of thousands of dollars of college loans and monthly rent. I don't even make enough money to afford a car and its various costs. I'm not qualified to be doing anything else, because no one really wants to hire a literature major to do anything but answer phones all day.

So, now I am (a) not making a difference, (b) not doing what I love, and (c) not making any money. I had always supposed that whatever job I would eventually have would fall into at least one of those three categories, because I had always been told it would. My father's motto, "Do what you love and the money will come," doesn't really apply if what you love to do is read and write. Unfortunate, but true.

So, to return to my original point, listening to Professor Pausch wax on about how all of his childhood dreams came true and, oh, isn't that grand, kind of irritated me. Yes, I'm young, and I have no idea where my life will go from here, but it's hard to hear that someone else reached the pinnacle of their own expectations while I'm contemplating years of filing paperwork and kissing ass. I'm sure some people will be shocked by this and say, "Lindsay, the man was dying of pancreatic cancer. How can you be envious of him?" Well, I'm going to die some day, too, but society doesn't value my talents and interests enough for me to reasonably expect any, let alone all, of my dreams to come true. So sue me for being a teensy weensy bit bitter.

In fact, lots of people will never have those kinds of opportunities--women who sacrifice their dreams for their husbands' careers or their children, those who just don't have the skill sets necessary to secure good jobs, those who are racially or socio-economically challenged by modern-day America's biases. (Did I mention that a black man is much more likely to go to prison than to go to college? Yes, I'm sure if they just worked harder they would get their shining Disney moments, as well.) It's morally unethical to promise us a life of lemon drops and gum drops when it's really just going to be rain.

Let me pause here for a moment, however, to examine my own life. When I was a little girl, my dreams were ever-changing, but a few do stick out in my memory: I wanted to write a book, I wanted to be a park ranger, I wanted to go to summer camp, and, when I got a little older, I wanted to return to Colorado.

Well, while I've never had a book published, I did write a book that I finished when I was eighteen--a young adult novel entitled The Follies of a Beautiful Genius, and all of the people who mattered to me most read it. I now have my own copy with laminated covers and plastic binding. I don't remember ever wanting to be a famous author making oodles of money; I just wanted to finish writing a book. Technically, I've achieved that.

I've also never been a park ranger, but that's mostly because I discovered I had an aversion to guns. I did work in a state park for about a year, however, as a park aid, and I got to wear the Baghdad-brown khakis and the official-looking namebadge. I had park visitors calling me "ranger," and I got to speak as the voice of the park because I was often the only employee the visitors would see. Was I a park ranger? No, but I did find a job with all the perks, which were, namely, location location location. Ditto with the summer camp thing--I never went, but I did work as a camp counselor one summer in Pennsylvania for eight weeks.

Finally, I moved back to Colorado last October, which I often feel was one of the best decisions I ever made. And what prompted me to move back? Why, it was that shitty non-profit job that gave me the kick I needed to step back and re-evaluate my life.

So, do I have my dream job? No. Have I achieved many of my childhood dreams? Apparently yes. What this tells me, then, is not that if we work hard enough we can achieve whatever we want. No, what this tells me is that children have simple wishes and desires that can make them happy--it's only as we get older that we start to expect things like important, fulfilling, economically advantageous careers, and perfect relationships, and beautiful bodies. As children, we really just wanted to be happy; as adults, we want perfection and are disappointed by anything less.

My point, I guess, is that I don't really envy Professor Paush his achievements, and I'm not really all that bitter--but only because I have finally begun to acknowledge that, though I can't expect the world to give me lemon drops and gum drops, I can stand outside and enjoy the rain and be thankful for the opportunity to even see it, because there are 791,600 black men in prison who won't even get the chance. [1]

Work Cited:

[1] "More Black Men in Prison Than College, Study Finds." http://stopthedrugwar.org/chronicle-old/252/jpistudy.shtml

Saturday, August 9, 2008

How to Write Philosophy: The Good Christian's Guide to Sounding Authoritative Even When You Don't Have A Clue

Prologue

After giving the subject much thought and consideration, I have finally stumbled across a method which virtually guarantees that you will be considered a genius by most of the world. How did she come upon this method? you might ask yourself. The answer is simple: by studying the "great minds" of the past, I know how to convince not only your wife and neighbors, but everyone, that you too are a great mind... even if you aren’t.

The very first thing you must do is begin to form a gang; I do not say this in jest. Following in the illustrious footsteps of Ayn Rand, pictured left, you must gather a group of dimwits and convince them that you know best. While some people, such as Joseph Stalin, pictured right, preferred to become the leader of the group after they became famous, in the fast-paced world in which we live today, one can never start to form a gang too early. (I’m sure Jack Kerouac, pictured left, would agree–he managed to form a literary movement by using psychedelic drugs and sleeping around, all the time calling it "Buddhism." For other ideas on incorporating religion into your philosophy, see section 1.) While people such as Jesus managed to gather their gangs on their good looks and charms, however, it might be best for you to join a writing club and start there; compose a fairly lengthy poem in which you use the phrases "darkness of my heart" and "bottomless soul" at least seventeen times each and you will surely impress the other members of the club. Once you seize control of the group, you can banish anyone who dared to call your poetry cliche or mediocre. The tribe has spoken.

Now that you have your gang, the real work will begin–mainly, writing your philosophical theses. You may write either many shorter pieces or one long piece to begin with; it all really depends on the attention span of your gang. If the majority of them have ADHD, try to keep the brilliant novels to a minimum and focus instead on writing essays to explain the world as you know it. You can bundle the essays into one book and call them the "annotated collection" of all of your work, or (as Benjamin, pictured right, did in his Illuminations) simply find a word that you think sounds impressive and paste it on the cover of the three-ring binder you put all of your writing in. Once you become published, you can buy a round of Ritalin for everyone.

It doesn’t matter overly what you write about–just as long as the topic is sufficiently huge enough to require you to continue to write about it for many years. After all, even if you could explain the meaning behind the universe in four hundred and fifty words, for job security it would be best if you didn’t. (Note: Tackling "the meaning behind the universe" as the subject for your first work of brilliance may be a bit foolhardy; start with something a bit smaller but still "interesting" enough for the common man to want to read it. I say "interesting" because it really doesn’t matter whether or not it is interesting–if you pay Larry King, pictured left, enough to let you on his show, you’ll be able to tell America that it is... and most people, whether or not they’ve even read the book, will agree.)

Instead, write many smaller essays on the subject, and then several novels, always referring to the essays you already wrote to ensure more book sales. Immanuel Kant caught onto that idea a bit slowly, deciding belatedly to contradict himself in his third book after he had written everything he had to say in his second book... no use resting on past laurels if you’ve got more great ideas that contradict everything you’ve ever written before, I always say.

There are many such "tricks of the trade," some better-known than others. Included is a brief summary of some of these tricks–this should not be treated as comprehensive, as I plan to publish many more books on the subject and have no interest in exhausting my subject matter too quickly. As I wrote in my essay, "In Pursuit of the Absolute: Sublimity in Longinus and Kant", "Tricking and misleading one’s readers is acceptable as long as one does not get caught." That is as true now as it was then.

1. Identifying Your Target Audience

The first thing you’re going to want to do (after you assemble your gang) is to figure out who you’re aiming for with your philosophical theses. This will be especially important to keep in mind when you actually start writing your essays, because you definitely don’t want to alienate those readers. Instead, you want to make the opinions that they already have sound like they are based on fact and are, indeed, correct, as opposed to all the other fools in the world. (If I were you, I’d aim for white Protestants–that’s where all the money is. I’d call this the Yuppie crowd, but I don’t want to risk offending my reader base.) Anyway, figure out who you’re writing for, and then write for them!

One really good idea to begin with, just in general when writing nonfiction–especially if you’re aiming to publish your work in the United States, where there is no separation between Church and State–is to maneuver Christian ideals and catchphrases into your title. After all, it would surely be a sin not to buy The Good Christian’s Guide to Avoiding Eternal Damnation: God Told Me To Write This And He Wants You to Buy It, Too, while no one will feel guilty for not buying The Meaning of Life: This Is Just What I Think. More words to consider using: The Good Lord, heaven, gospel, savior, Armageddon and, of course, Jesus Christ, pictured right. If you can manage to have yourself sainted, like St. Thomas Aquinas, pictured left, that would be pretty cool, too.

2. Confidence, Confidence, Confidence

Basically, if you just act like you know what you’re talking about, people will believe you. You can begin your literary legacy by pulling a bunch of stuff out of your ass and throwing it onto the page, and if you can read it out loud without cracking a smile, people will hail you as a genius. If you can translate whatever your great idea is into another language, it’s even better–bonus points for putting it into a dead language like Latin. After all, "Cogito ergo sum."

3. SEX!

There are many ways to get attention aside from going onto Oprah and behaving like a baboon on the host’s couch. (Although, if you get the chance to do that, take it. Paying off Larry King will only get you so far.) For those of you who must resort to grabbing your readers’ attention through your writing, there are some different ways to go about this. For example, using the word SEX as often as possible is definitely a good way to go; people are still talking about Freud, pictured left, even now that we all know his theories are bunk. Why? Because, my friend, Sigmund Freud knew the power of the horizontal hula. By merely invoking the words sex and penis envy, he dipped into the brains of people everywhere–including the people who, if such words were not on the page, wouldn’t have cared to read his books. Of course, your whole book doesn’t have to be about sex–this isn’t erotica, for God’s sake, it’s philosophy. (Besides, once they buy the book, they can’t return it, and you’ve already gotten your five percent.) Violence is also good (if your target audience is men), as are gender relations (if your target audience is women). If you can get both of these in there, it’ll be like a machine gun ripping through couple’s therapy (To read more about metaphors and similes, see section 7).

4. Confusion is Key

One of the keys to writing good philosophy is to confuse your reader. Much like the emperor’s new clothes were hailed as beautiful because no one could see them, your theses will be lauded as brilliant because no one will be able to understand them. However, since you wrote them, you must know what they mean, and if no one else can understand them, you must be smarter than everyone else. If you’re a genius, then your work must be inspirational. It’s cyclical logic, to be sure, but everyone will be so eager to prove that they, too, understand your writing, that they won’t stop to think about that.

There are many different ways to be deliberately confusing. Word choice is incredibly important–why use a simple word when a big word will say almost the same thing? And if it doesn’t quite make sense with the new, four-syllable word, then it must be because your readers are a bit slower than you, right? The bigger the word, the better. It’s also good to use words that sound specific but are, in fact, incredibly vague. Use them in sentences over and over again without ever overtly stating just what you mean by those words, and your readers will be stretching their brains trying to understand what you’re saying. If they can’t understand you, they’ll automatically believe that it’s because the writing is over their heads.

Even better is to use vague words in a very specific manner, defining them to the point of ridiculousness. If you can find two words that seem to mean the same thing, and then use them in completely different ways, kudos to you. For example, Benjamin’s differentiation between "historicism" and "historical materialism"was brilliant–it is aggravating to the brain to try to separate the two ideas, and people automatically believe that the lack is in their own minds. Genius! Not only will they spend a lot of time reading your work, they’ll beat themselves up for not being as smart as you, as well.

It’s also incredibly important to choose the labels that you give to ideas with care. You must choose words that seem like they should be innocuous and either emphasize them to the point of absurdity or capitalize them every time you use them. The confusion this will Cause will be well worth the Effort. Another easy way to accomplish this is to change the part of speech of a word; take a verb or an adjective and change it into a noun, or vice versa. Heidegger pulled this off when he labeled part of his theory "the Open"–notice that he combined this with the misplaced capital letter to double the potency of the confusion. The man was an artist.

Contradict yourself as often as possible. Only by doing this will you completely confuse your reader. After all, contradiction is a worthless practice and no one should ever do it for any reason.

Finally, use modern-day conventions to your advantage. For example, the PC ("politically correct") phase that we are currently suffering through can definitely be put to good use. Instead of being specific when using pronouns, use the asexual "one" very often to muddle the mind. When one reads the book written by someone else, which that one put a lot of Effort into, one finds one’s brains beginning to get as confused as the other one’s, though one can find many examples in any newspaper that is out nowadays, as well.

5. Using the Big Guys

One way to get started on your theses is to flip open a book of some other philosopher who you’ve heard of, run your finger down the page, and carefully read the sentence you’re pointing at. (Don’t bother reading the rest of the book–I think it’s fairly easy to tell that most of the philosophers of the past didn’t know as much as you do now. After all, we as a people have progressed so far, both technologically and morally, that it’s impossible for anyone from two hundred years ago to have an ice-sickle’s chance in hell at actually getting anything right.) Depending on what the sentence you’re pointing at says, you can use it one of three ways:
(1) You can cite it as a source to back up whatever it is you’re saying. If you’re using the right philosopher (preferably one who uses a lot of big words), everyone will just believe you that the quote supports what you’re trying to say beCause it’s too much work for their brain to translate it into understandable English.

(2)You can rework the quote to suit your own needs. Here’s an example of reworking Aristotle’s Poetics to suit your needs. The actual quote is, "Further, correctness in poetry is not the same thing as correctness in morals, nor yet is it the same as correctness in any other art. Faults that are relevant to the art of poetry itself are of two kinds, one involving its essential nature, and the other incidental.") Now just take that quote, fiddle around with it, and presto! Here’s the new and improved quote to put in your theses: "Further, [...] correctness in morals [...] is [...] incidental." My goodness! Aristotle was arguing that morals are "incidental"? Now just come up with a pithy response (and some way to work this into your book), and you’re all set. Now you’re a better person than Aristotle, who’s long dead and can’t defend himself.

(3) The method of using the big guys that takes the least work is called "appropriation." Essentially, just take an idea that one of the big guys had and make it your own–be sure to change the wording, of course, but now you have a brand new philosophy all set and ready to be published.

The "Big Guys" group includes anyone who you’ve ever heard of, in addition to a lot of people you haven’t. Having trouble getting started? Just look up any of the following and let the "using" begin: Niccolo Machiavelli, pictured right, Friedrich Nietzsche, Thomas Hobbes, Charles Darwin, Jon Stewart, and many more. Stay away from Marx unless you want to be labeled a commie bastard and don’t take pot shots at Freud–that’s beneath you.

6. No One Likes A Smart Ass... Unless He’s a Philosopher

While most people of today read Plato, pictured right, only if they are absolutely forced to, and then only with the Cliff notes within easy reach, it is undeniable that his writings have held on to public interest for thousands of years. Despite the fact that he is basically condoning the old world Brave New World (fascism, controlled "free" love, and infanticide being some of the chief features of this marvelous utopia), The Republic is considered today to be a cornerstone of modern society. (If anyone else is bothered by this idea, please seal a dollar in an envelope and mail it to the "Fighting the ‘Old World Brave New World’ Fund", c/o Lindsay.) How did Plato do it? By making Socrates the biggest smart ass BC Greece had ever seen. The appeal is still undeniable–reading about how stupid everyone who doesn’t agree with someone is, one feels immediately superior oneself... if one agrees with what that someone is saying. (How are you liking this PC craze?) And, as the reader doesn’t want to be part of the stupid group, he or she automatically begins to identify with the speaker, reinforcing the idea that the philosophy is correct.

7. Ways to Sound Cool

So far, we’ve briefly discussed several ways to sound cool (using Latin indiscriminately being one of them), but there are many other forms of coolness available to writers. Here are several:

Depending on your target audience, you can use different types of words. If you’re aiming for Yuppies, talk about "the mortgage of life" or something else they’ll understand. If you’re aiming significantly lower at the high school crowd, talk about the meaningless of existence and sex. If you’re aiming still lower at the college crowd, talk about Starbucks coffee and drinking games and you’ll be all set.

Use metaphors. A lot of them. And never explain them. The more complex and indefinite, the better, beCause people will feel that you are not only a brilliant philosopher, you’re a poet, as well. Sometimes it will even seem to the reader as though there is a hidden message somewhere in the statement. Your writing must be fabric softener–it’s best if poured into a Downy Ball first.

Use examples, both from everyday life and from obscure literary sources that people may have heard about but have never read. It’s like T.S. Eliot, pictured right, wrote in "The Wasteland", "Here is no water but only rock / Rock and no water and the sandy road". It’s even better if the examples don’t make sense. After all, the man who locks himself out of his house had better be wearing pants.

Epilogue

The art of philosophy is a careful balancing of bullshit and sincerity; only if one is capable of managing both (or at least an air of sincerity) will one become a famous philosopher. By following the directions provided in this guide, you’ll be that much closer to becoming published and rich.

Watch for more guides by Lindsay:

How to Write Jewish Philosophy:
The Hebrew Guide to Acting Like You Know What You’re Talking About Even When You Don’t Have A Clue

How to Write Zen Philosophy:
The True Buddhist’s Guide to Acting Like You Know What You’re Talking About Even When You Don’t Have A Clue

How to Write Depressing Philosophy:
The Atheist’s Guide to Acting Like You Know What You’re Talking About Even When You Don’t Have a Clue
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